Natural sponges are harvested from either sea animals or vegetable plants, namely gourds. Loofah, or loofah, sponges are produced from long, thin gourds and are much harder and more abrasive than sea sponges. Most often, loofah sponges are used for scrubbing and exfoliating dead skin. Often seen for sale in stores in the form of back brushes or exfoliating mitts, loofah sponges also make ideal scrubbers for pots, pans and surfaces, such as counter tops. The loofah gourd is an amazingly versatile, no-fuss plant that is relatively easy to grow in warm climates. Making homemade loofah sponges is not only possible, but fairly easy to do.
Growing the Loofah Gourd
Loofah gourds are members of a plant family called "cucurbits." Melons, pumpkins and cucumbers are also relatives of this same family. Different varieties of loofah gourds produce loofah sponges of varying density and colour. The plants needs a minimum growing period of four months and require long, warm, sunny days and trellising to grow properly. If left to trail on the ground, the growing gourds may rot or discolour, creating brown, spotty loofah sponges. Loofah gourd plants are vigorous growers and can reach lengths up to 20 feet, which is why supporting the vines with a trellis or fence is so important. Originally from southern Asia where growing seasons can be quite hot, loofah gourd plants will produce more fruit if planted in direct sun, and watered well during the first month or so. After they're well-established, watering isn't as critical. Southeastern Gulf states in the U.S. provide near-perfect climates for growing loofah gourds.
Harvesting the Gourds
When the loofahs have lost their green colour, turn yellow, then beige or brown after drying on the vine, they are ready for harvesting. At this point the gourds become lighter and the seeds rattle around inside of them. Each gourd matching this criteria is picked as soon as possible. The skin on a dried loofah gourd begins to loosen from the spongy mass inside and is ready for peeling. Some growers allow loofah gourds to remain on the plants after the first killing frost, where the gourds continue to dry naturally on the dead vines. Extreme wet weather will rot the gourds, however, so often gourds that aren't quite dried are brought inside into a warm, well-ventilated area and allowed to dry over time.
Removing the Skin
If a gourd is in perfect shape for peeling, the blossom end is removed and a "vascular bundle" on the gourd is pulled like a zipper down the length of the gourd, easily peeling away the skin, often in one piece. If any green skin remains on the gourd, sometimes the gourds are dipped in water to help with the loosening process. Some loofah growers recommend throwing the gourd to the ground as a means of loosening the skin from the fibrous sponge inside. Too, those gourds that break apart after having been tossed to the ground are flawed in some way, so the process proves as a means to cull poor quality sponges from potentially good, marketable loofah sponges.
Bleaching the Sponges
Once the skin has been removed from a loofah gourd, the resulting fibrous flesh is given a water bath, which also helps to remove the seeds trapped inside the sponge. Seeds are dried and saved for planting the following season. If the sponges are discoloured, they are often dipped in a mild bleach solution to help whiten them. The rinsed sponges are hung outside to dry or placed on a drying screen. The sun and wind quickly dry the sponges and also helps to lighten their colour.
Uses of Loofah Sponges
As stated earlier, loofah sponges are excellent for sloughing off dead skin and have desirable exfoliating properties without being harshly abrasive. A wide array of products made from loofah sponges are available at chemists, health-food centres and department stores. Not only are loofah bath or shower mitts and back brushes popular, but loofah-sponge soaps, sandals, back straps and facial disks are additional items for sale at modest prices. Loofah sponges are certainly an inexpensive and green alternative to man-made or sea sponges.
Caring for a Loofah Sponge Product
Newly purchased loofah sponges are rock-hard. They should soften when dipped in warm water, but if they don't soften enough after a warm-water soak, a mild bleach solution-soak is advisable. Just don't soak the sponge too long, or it may become too soft and fall apart. Too, loofah sponges used in the bath or shower need to be washed regularly to avoid soap build-up within the fibres. To clean them, rinse with cool water, let soak for a couple of hours in a mild vinegar/water solution, rinse and allow to dry completely. The loofah sponge should be as good as new and ready for scrubbing. Loofah sponges will begin to rot and mildew if kept constantly wet.